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Exclusive: White House makes a big bet on small satellites

The White House is announcing its plan today to promote the use of small space satellites — a move aimed at strengthening the U.S.’ burgeoning commercial space industry. The project, called “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution,” is meant to spur collaboration between government agencies, including NASA, and the private sector to find practical uses for small satellites, or smallsats.

These tiny space probes can be valuable tools for planetary scientists

These tiny space probes — which weigh anywhere between a few hundred pounds to just a few ounces — can be valuable tools for planetary scientists, as well as provide internet access and monitor space traffic. That’s why the White House is looking for ways to boost smallsat production, as well as find ways these private spacecraft can benefit the government. So as part of the new initiative, NASA will be spending up to $25 million to purchase data collected by private companies’ smallsats. For now, the space agency is looking for data that can help with its study of Earth science, like detailed images of the planet’s surface. NASA will also spend an extra $5 million to make this smallsat technology even more robust.

Additionally, NASA will create a new institute within its Ames Research Center, called the Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute. This new program will serve as a “front door” for the commercial space industry, so private companies and NASA can figure out how best to make and use smallsats. The institute will also find ways to incorporate commercial smallsats in NASA missions. “This is a strong signal from the administration that it recognizes small satellites are driving a renaissance of commercial space,” Tom Kalil, the deputy director for tech and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, tells The Verge.

Planet’s Dove satellites. (Planet)

The new initiative is in keeping with the theme of the Obama Administration’s approach to space: using government resources to bolster the growth of the private space industry. President Obama reiterated the need for partnerships between the public and private sector in order to get humans to Mars in a recent CNN op-ed. And these collaborations, such as the commercial crew and cargo programs, have become a hallmark of his space policy, giving the private space industry greater opportunity and other sources of funding.

These collaborations have become a hallmark of Obama’s space policy

Small satellites in particular have been popular for the private space industry. In contrast, traditional satellites can weigh up to tens of thousands of pounds, cost billions of dollars to make and often take years to build. Plus, an entire rocket is often needed to launch just one of these satellites into space. Meanwhile, small satellites can be made on a much shorter timescale for the fraction of the cost, and multiple probes can go up on one rocket.

Many private companies have already started capitalizing on smallsat technology, such as the San Francisco-based Planet, which has more than 50 of its Dove satellites in orbit right now. Eventually, Planet wants hundreds of satellites in orbit, to capture detailed images of the Earth every single day. And the government is looking to harness that information too. Through this new initiative, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency will pay Planet $20 million to access data from the Dove satellites, allowing the agency to get images of 85 percent of Earth’s surface every 15 days.

“To have the US government as a customer for a commercial service isn’t just a win for Planet — it’s a boon for all innovators and new players participating in this space renaissance,” Jen Marcus, Planet’s director of US Government Strategic Partnerships, writes in a blog post today.

The private space industry is growing beyond just satellites though. As a result, the White House is enhancing the role of the Office of Space Commerce, which sets economic space policy. The office’s new powers will allow its director to advise the Commerce Secretary on policies that may help the private space industry grow. So we may be seeing more similar initiatives like this aimed at giving the commercial sector a leg up.


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